On September 25, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA") granted applications by numerous companies for permission to use Unmanned Aerial Systems ("UAS") - more commonly known as drones - for film production on movie sets. This long-awaited move clears the way for filmmakers and others to use these low-cost filmmaking tools. However, a close reading of the FAA decisions reveals a number of restrictions on UAS. Here's a summary of what you need to know.
The legality of drone use in the US has been highly unsettled for some time, despite their approval in other countries. In general, drone use is currently only legal below 500 feet and if the user is a "hobbyist" (e.g., a model airplane operator). The FAA has taken the position that any payments or business involving drones renders the use of the drone illegal on the ground that the user is no longer a hobbyist. The FAA's recent grant of exemptions therefore opens the door to the first legitimate commercial uses of drones in the US.
Filmmakers seeking an exemption permitting drone use must apply to the FAA. However, the exemptions granted by the FAA are subject to extensive restrictions. Typical restrictions include the following:
- The UAS must weigh less than 55 pounds (25 kg) including energy source and photographic equipment, and must be of a type approved by the FAA.
- The UAS must not be flown above 400 feet or faster than a ground speed of 50 knots.
- The pilot operating the UAS must be licensed, must notify nearby air traffic controllers, and must operate subject to an approved operator's manual.
- The UAS must be operated within a visual line of sight of the pilot in command of it, and only over consenting production personnel.
The extensive exemption requirements will likely restrict use of UAS to larger organizations, at least for now. However, given the high level of interest in drone use, we expect the FAA to continue to issue exemptions to address the anticipated growth in this sector.
Filmmakers wishing to take advantage of these new procedures should also be aware that despite FAA approval, drone use can raise other legal issues, such as complaints of invasion of privacy by those filmed by cameras carried by a drone. Many states impose liability for public disclosure of private facts, and privacy advocates have been focusing attention on the anti-"Peeping Tom" statutes in many states. Many local governments have also passed laws purporting to regulate use of drones, although the FAA's action suggests that it will assert its broad jurisdiction over use of the nation's airspace, which could serve to invalidate local laws.
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